Sword & Sorcery is a clenched fist thrust into the sky, a raised middle finger in the face of the Unknown, an epithet spat into the dirt through a rictus of bared teeth. S&S demands an attitude of not merely surviving but of dominating living, all else—everything else—be damned. The heroes of S&S continue living deeply until there are no more breaths to take. The only -ism S&S promotes is LIVE!-ism. Absolutely a rebellion against meaninglessness, it also fully embraces an I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-it-is-all-meaningless creed. “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Robert E. Howard, through Conan, again saying it best in “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Jason M. Waltz from “It’s Not Gentle,” the foreword to Neither Beg Nor Yield
I reviewed Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure over at Stuff I Like: A Blog (called Swords & Sorcery: A Blog back then) twelve years ago. I had discovered the book by way of a mention here at Black Gate, which I had discovered while on the hunt for contemporary sword & sorcery. This book, more than anything else, convinced me there was a wealth of new and, more importantly, good S&S writing being done.
I had created my site to focus on ensuring the classics of S&S weren’t forgotten in the face of the seemingly irresistible tide of grimdark fiction that was new back then. Waltz’s book forced me to direct an increasing portion of my efforts toward the new stories. Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge, and John Fultz were all authors I first encountered in that period. There are also dozens of writers I found reviewing hundreds of new stories right here on the pages of Black Gate.
Since signing off from my weekly review column at Black Gate, I’ve read little S&S of any sort. Truthfully, I accomplish too little reading in general these days. I’ve got to say, I was actually excited when Jason asked if I would review a copy of his latest collection, Neither Beg Nor Yield. So, with no more yapping, let me dive in.
“Hunters and Prey” by C.L. Werner features his recurring demon-slaying Shintaro Oba. The main character, though, for most of the story is a ronin turned bounty hunter, Akuryo. With its culture of samurai and ronin and a wealth of demonic monsters such as the spider-like tsuchigumo featured in this story. I especially love how the creature lures its intended victims.
In the glow of the tunnel, Oba saw that what he’d just cut down was more gossamer than flesh. The old man was slashed across the belly and from the wound a mass of spiderwebs spilled out. The creature tried to hide the injury with its hands, but once it was aware that Oba had seen what was behind its wrinkly skin, the thing abandoned the effort. An utterly blank expression came over the face and it collapsed to the floor. The samurai probed the inert husk with Koumakiri, stabbing into the shell of withered skin to expose more of the cobwebs within. The old man hadn’t been human at all, merely a simulacrum, a desiccated hide stuffed with Jou-gen’s silk. Trailing from behind the broken puppet, a thicker strand of web snaked its way further into the tsuchigumo’s domain. The string by which the demon had manipulated its grisly doll.
William King’s “Prince of Dragons” is the origin story of his character Kormak. There are eleven Kormak books, but I haven’t read any. After this story, that might change.
As a boy, Kormak is the sole survivor of a village wiped out by the Prince of Dragons, a demonic being possessed of a bottomless hatred of humanity. Before being driven off, the demon promises to return one day to claim the boy’s life. The story tells of the boy’s training as a Guardian, a warrior crafted to seek out and slay monsters as well as several of his battles with them. An epic tale compressed into a handful of pages, and a reminder that incredible world-building doesn’t demand 1,000-page books.
“Suspension in Silver” by Eric Turowski was the story that demanded the most from me. Not because it’s some avant-garde literary jaunt or Burroughsesque (William, that is) cut-up story. No, it’s because it’s set in Fargo and has biker werewolves. My definition of S&S is pretty expansive, but I wasn’t expecting this one. That said, it’s a sharp story that’s piqued my interest in other tales featuring its monster-killing hero, Irons.
There’s an emotional conclusion to John C. Hocking’s “Soldier, Seeker, Slayer” I wasn’t expecting. Creon is a warrior turned into a fantastically grotesque thing, complete with implanted magical weaponry.
He lifted a hand to touch at the veil and recalled that his right hand was not a hand at all. The stump of his wrist was crowned with an ornately figured cap of gleaming silver studded with blue gems, the largest as big as an eyeball. Amongst the jewels several short black blades jutted, a cluster of cruel scalpels. As he looked on, the gems pulsed with soft blue light.
When his lord, Atrus, sets him off in pursuit of an intruder possibly linked to the kidnapping of Creon’s daughter the reader might suspect something’s wrong, just not how wrong.
“Harvest of the Blood-King” by Steve Dilks is good, bloody fun. Bohun, a renegade soldier, and his demoted former commander, Tiberius Varro, are sent on what’s most likely a suicide mission into barbarian territory to rescue a Senator’s kidnapped son.
It’s got the single line that best embodies the S&S attitude Jason so emphatically describes in the foreword.
“Why did you tell him they were wolves?” asked Bohun.
“Didn’t want to give the lad nightmares. There’s magic brewing in them woods, Bohun. I can smell it. I know you can, too.” He shrugged. “So, what do you think?”
Bohun smiled. “I think we’re all going to die.”
That smile at the end makes it clear that while his death might be inevitable, Bohun’s not going down without fighting to the uttermost end. It’s perfection.
Set in an analogue of the German frontier during the days of the Roman Empire, it got me thinking about just how many fantasy Roman simulacrums are out there in fantasy land. I thought of a couple right away and this collection’s penultimate entry features another one.
Chuck Dixon’s “The Stone from the Stars” is a cool homage to a certain larcenous duo from Nehwon. Hagen and Pilsner are a pair of mercenaries escaping the aftermath of having hired onto the losing side in a war. In need of funds, they find themself, unexpectedly, in the service of a wizard and his beautiful daughter. This one had me chuckling out loud more than once.
From the first time I read John R Fultz, I was impressed with his talent for merging the phantasmagorical imagery of writers like Clark Ashton Smith and blunt, bloody action. “Evil World” is no exception. Again, a young boy is trained to become a great warrior, groomed by his mother with potent spells and elixirs, his goal: the liberation of his home city from an army of monsters.
“Ten years ago, something deep within the earth’s crust shifted,” she said, “and hundreds of Earth Giants emerged from the Underworld.” The Akagarri were hunched and grotesque brutes standing twice as tall as any human. Many sported ram-like horns on their simian heads, and some of them bore two heads between their massive shoulders. Driving a horde of lupine demons before them like war dogs, they stormed Old Shard and shattered its walls.
There’s mention of the historical Rome in “Reckoning” by Keith J. Taylor. One of his recurring characters, Nasach the Firbolg, and his companions find themselves forced to sign on with a shipful of pirates. Aquatic magic and revenge feature in this story set in Ireland’s turbulent and violent past.
I take back what I wrote about “Suspension in Silver.” “Golden Devils of the Crypt” by Phil Emery demanded the most from me. There were times I did not know what exactly was happening. There are striking images in the story, but I remain wholly uncertain whether my confusion arose from the prose or my obtuseness.
On the world of Anula following a nuclear apocalypse, “dark sorcery” battles the “white sorcery of science” for supremacy. Mighty barbarian Corlagh and Norad, a thief Corlagh knows he killed in the past, find themselves at odds in a mysterious pair of towers. Soon, all sorts of strange things start happening as they struggle to discover the secrets of the towers. This is a dense, complex story that I think I’ll need to revisit in the future.
Just how far a man will go to provide respite from torture and death is the question raised in David C. Smith’s “The Undead of Sul-Atet.” Demons have risen from under the Earth, killed the gods, and begun to conquer and enslave humanity. To stave this off for his family and people for a few generations, at least, Etain makes a literal deal with the devil. The story is suffused with an overwhelming resignation in the face of total darkness.
A trio of would-be grave robbers set out to plunder the dead of their wealth in Frederick Tor’s haunt-filled “The Shades of Nacross Hill.” I’m a sucker for urban S&S. My favorite Fritz Leiber stories are those set in Lankhmar and PC Hodgell’s God Stalk is one of my favorites.
Even before the action begins, Tor treats us to a history of the cemetery:
Night comes early to Nacross Hill, shadowing the spaces between the crowded, ancient tombs, the dark of evening sliding between the thickets of stone markers, pedestaled statues, and tower graves like a black sea drowning a forest of dead wood. Once proud, a place of rest for the best men and finest families, Nacross has grown old and wretched, the haunt of robbers and the eaters of the dead. Originally aloof of the chaos of Skovolis, standing on what had once been the very outskirts of the city, long centuries had seen the urban environment overtake the cemetery hill and grow around it, swallowing it as a tree swallows the captured head of an axe, until Nacross became a valley between the dark cliff sides of walls and roofs and sightless windows. But within that valley flickered a weak orange light, a light that briefly illuminated Kaimer as he stole between the porticoes of empty tombs.
I won’t say this is my favorite story — there are simply too many good ones — but for the urbanist in me, this is my favorite passage.
After Eric Turkowski’s bikers and Phil Emery’s weirdness, I was pretty well prepared for the insanity of Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Organ Grinder’s Monkey.” Greasy Bob, armed with a magical monkey wrench named Ajax, and his sidekick Olo, travel into another dimension to fight an organ grinder’s monkey. The monkey has been sending swarms of man-eating birds into the world because some men killed his sloth girlfriend. If that doesn’t make you want to read this story, well, I just don’t know what to say.
I think Lansdale’s best known these days for his hardboiled Hap & Leonard books and his regional tales, but those who know, know he’s a long-time writer of some truly outrageous and lunatic stories. He once said, “When funky stories need to be written, I write a Greasy Bob story.” This is categorically a funky story.
Azirah, captain of the Şahin, sets sail for a mysterious island to wreak havoc on a sorcerer in Eadwine Brown’s “Vengeance, by Wind and Tide.” She and her crew are outraged when they discover the crew of another ship brutally killed. Eventually, by asking the right questions of the right people, she discerns the killer’s identity and location. Soon she and her crew are off to find and kill a wizard. Before the story’s end, there are deadly flowers, rampaging ape-men, and even a djinn. Basic S&S meat and potatoes. You know, the good stuff.
I admit I come to anything by Glen Cook with a strong bias. He’s one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read and reread many of his books many times. That said, this story is great. Japan, again, proves a perfect setting for S&S.
Cook has never been a prolific short story writer, but it was his story “Filed Teeth” that made me an immediate fan over forty years ago (see my review of it here). I wouldn’t be surprised if his new story, “Isekai Sengokumonogatari,” subtitled, “A Story in the Time of the Warring States in an Alternate Universe,” makes a few more fans for Cook.
Togu Shinzutoro is a scruffy, lazy warrior whose relatives are no longer willing to put up with freeloading. Japan is at war with itself and a drought has struck the land. If he doesn’t want to find himself out on his rear, he’ll have to take a paying job his uncle has found for him. He must escort a trio of orphaned children over the mountains to their relatives.
See some orphans safely to their relatives on the other side of the island? How hard could that be?
Inumachi? A hundred twenty miles, roughly. A week or more of walking with the brats no doubt whining all the way, through forest, over mountains, across chasms, past haunted places, cursed places, possibly having to deal with bears or bandits, or…
Or with the yokai said to abound in the mountains.
And of course, the mountains do abound with the ghostly yokai, along with monsters, bandits, treachery, and a woman of mysterious ways. Sort of an origin story, I hope this is only the first of more.
As with Japan, so it goes with ancient Ireland in this collection. In Jeff Stewart’s “Bona Na Croin.” Following a bloody run-in with some larceny-minded farmers, the warrior Fergus enters the service of King Morthsea. Unfortunately, for the coming trouble with King Connall, Morthsea has employed the services of a dark sorcerer with a taste for black magic of the evilest sort. Fergus is a wonderfully cheerful character, even as he’s laying his enemies low.
Steve Goble’s character, Calthus, is an interesting creation. In centuries past he was known as Slaughter Lord of Thaal. When an order of monks needed a monster killed, they summoned Calthus’s spirit and implanted it into a new body. Now, that monster slain, he wanders the world.
At the beginning of “Virgins for Khull,” Calthus is simply bored, wandering an empty land. That is until he comes across two soldiers marching three manacled young women across that empty land. They are intended as sacrifices for the terrible god Khull. Calthus is ready enough to leave the soldiers alone. The soldiers, though, can’t leave him alone.
The riders relaxed a bit, and lowered their swords, but they did not sheath them. “Then do as I command, and be on your way.”
Calthus stood his ground. “Do not think you can command me.”
This was not his fight. He had no ties to these women, and no reason to care what happened to them. But Calthus had been bored, and now he was not. This man’s officious manner was like a spur.
Needless to say, Calthus soon finds himself deeply involved in the affairs of the three women and Khull.
Steven Erikson, writer of a great many thick books, is on hand here with the story of the fleeing survivors of a fallen kingdom. “The Last Vandals on Earth” is about exactly that. The Vandals were a Germanic tribe that established a kingdom in North Africa. For a century they savaged Mediterranean shipping until Byzantine general Belisarius conquered them.
Erikson’s story purports to be a manuscript discovered in some ruins. With humor and melancholy, it tells of a small group of Vandal refugees, their encounter with ancient magic in the desert, and their last stand. Narrator Ulfias and his wife Respendial are the two most memorable characters in this whole book of memorable characters and I’ll be a little disappointed if Erikson doesn’t give us another tale with them.
“The Barbarian’s Lawyer” by Lawerence A Weinstein, is well, about a lawyer appointed to defend a barbarian. In perfectly civilized Valor Keep, even a barbarian accused of robbing a rich man’s house after killing the monsters and men he guarded it with is entitled to legal representation. I’m always happy to find a comic fantasy story that’s actually funny. This is funny.
Howard Andrew Jones’s “Reflection From a Tarnished Mirror” is a Hanuvar story. It’s another story set in a mock Roman Empire. Hanuvar, an expy of Carthaginian general, Hannibal, is on a quest to free his people from slavery, one by one.
While the general is carrying on with his mission, someone, for unknown reasons has magically created an impostor Hanuvar. I don’t want to give anything away about this story. I will say it has a moment of heroic greatness that serves as well as any I’ve read before to remind me why I like this stuff so much.
Gnaeus smiled sadly, sensing the line of his thoughts. “You said before that you never expected to live as long. No soldier does.”
“All we can do is live well for the moments we have, and die well, for the right reasons. Hail and farewell, Hanuvar.”
The final story is from Adrian Cole, creator of the Voidal and countless other classic S&S creations. “Maiden Flight” is the meet-cute tale of a warrior Ulric Wulfsen and novice Valkyrie. It’s also about Wulfsen’s indomitable refusal to give up his life just because Odin tells him to. Which is the perfect attitude to bring Neither Beg Nor Yield to its end.
Obviously, I like this book — a lot. Waltz has a fan’s eye for what’s cool and an editor’s eye for what works. He marshaled some of the best writers in S&S and they delivered. There are exciting stories, spooky stories, moody stories, and dark stories. What their characters have in common is an indomitability of will and refusal to just roll over and die. Again, quoting Waltz from his foreword:
Sword & Sorcery is contrary to Death.
This might be the longest single review I’ve written for Black Gate (and no, I’m not going to go back and check the word count of all my old articles). That’s because I wanted to mention every story and include a wealth of excerpts. There were several big-name S&S collections over the past decade, but few come close to this one in capturing the breadth and depth of the genre as it exists right now. They also rely purely on authors published by the mainstream publishers. They deliberately neglected the vast majority of S&S writers who exist outside that world but are consistently creating the most vital and exciting stories. For a measly $8 you can get an e-book version right now. And you should.
NOTE: The artwork by MD Jackson is perfectly lo-fi and gritty as befits this essential new collection.
Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column each first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.